The Night Santa Went to Jail

I’m not talking about “The Santa Clause,” although Tim Allen’s character in the movie did spend some time in the locker. I’m talking about Nicholas of Myra, a Christian leader who lived a few hundred years after Jesus. You likely know him as Saint Nick or by the popular legend that followed him of Santa Claus. There are all kinds of stories surrounding this jolly saint, and some of them have nothing to do with presents.

Adam C. English, professor at Campbell University and author of The Saint Who Would Be Santa Claus: The True Life and Trials of Nicholas of Myra, describes the stories of “the jolly old elf of Christmastime lore” as “an embellishment on the historical persona of a Christian pastor from the 4th century.” The pastor from the fourth century is considered to be the patron saint of sailors, prostitutes, repentant thieves, and children. Saint Nicholas clearly covers a diverse audience.

Maybe that’s why people are so quick to credit him with such dramatic acts. For example, as early as the 1300s, one writer credits Nicholas for spending time in jail for slapping a heretic. As the story goes (which is refuted here), the assault happened at the Council of Nicaea in 325. When the ideas of the priest Arius were outlined, including his blasphemous view that Jesus was not fully God, Nicholas finally had enough. It’s said he walked across the room and slapped a proponent of this ideology right in the face and was promptly sent to prison.

In seasonal lore, Saint Nicholas is the historical inspiration for what we commonly think of as Santa Claus. No, he didn’t really have reindeer and deliver presents. But he was someone who cared about those in need including children. Many Christians remember him with an annual celebration, St. Nicholas Day or the Feast of St. Nicholas, on December 6th. Since his death, traditions continue to grow in his honor, including his placing presents—or tossing them down the chimney—into socks draped by the fire to dry.

As you hang those stockings with care, think of the real-life person who inspired our silly stories of Santa Clause. And reflect on that doctrine Saint Nicholas is said to have cared so much about, enough to inspire an apocryphal tale of decking a doctrinal dissident. Christmastime might be overshadowed by images of an old, overweight man in a red suit, but the real Father Christmas would likely direct our attention to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: the God who is three in one.

So, in honor of Saint Nick, thank the triune God for your blessings, and slap a heretic. Ho. Ho. Ho. Merry Christmas!